How to create a culture of psychological safety with OKRs - Expert advice

How to create a culture of psychological safety with OKRs - Expert advice

Psychological safety is one of the key pillars of OKRs. Without it, teams will not fully invest in the process. We asked 15 OKR experts their best practice tips for enhancing psychological safety.

Top 10 tips for creating a culture of psychological safety:

  1. Encourage experimentation & fail-fast modes
  2. Do not punish mistakes. OKRs is a learning process cycle, so it's important to understand that in the beginning we might fail
  3. Encourage appropriate risk-taking, and be explicit about the nature and consequences of risks
  4. Transparency is a major contributor in psychologically unsafe environments. Leadership has to be the role model here. The most effective thing you can do as leadership is to walk the talk
  5. Leadership must also share their own learning and errors with teams
  6. Managers should understand how employees would work if they felt psychologically safe. This creates enlightening conversations and highlights behaviours they may be missing and therefore later enable
  7. Demonstrate concern for team members as people, and actively solicit questions, providing multiple ways for employees to share their thoughts
  8. Schedule regular retrospectives to speak openly about what’s on peoples’ minds
  9. OKR workshops and tracking/review meetings should be ideally facilitated by an OKR champion (not the team lead)
  10. When difficulties arise, focus on solving an issue not blaming someone

Richard Russell, OKR Coach

Richard Russell, OKR & Leadership Coach

As with all cultural change, psychological safety is driven by the conscious and unconscious actions of leaders.

  • Encourage appropriate risk-taking, and be explicit about the nature and consequences of risks
  • Put in place guide rails to limit risk-taking where needed, and safety nets to contain downsides
  • Assess achievements in the context of constraints, abilities, resources, and the risks that were taken on
  • Reward the desired behaviour at all levels - which means tolerating “failure”, as long as it was the result of good performance when a risk didn’t work out

OKRs will help by encouraging explicit conversations about goals, risks, and how they are assessed, but the action all happens with leaders behaviour.

Nikhil Maini

Nikhil Maini, Global OKR Coach, OKR International

Here are some tried and tested tips for creating Psychological Safety to win your OKRs

  1. Create a learning organisation – share openly what’s not working
  2. Debate the point, not the person
  3. Focus on solving an issue not blaming someone
  4. Encourage experimentation & fail-fast modes
  5. Provide empowerment & alignment
  6. Spend more time on Feedforward than on feedback
  7. Coach & Acknowledge Regularly
Madeleine Silva, OKR Coach

Madeleine Silva, OKR Coach & Trainer

Working with OKR demands an open mind, and you must be willing to change your mindset and your way of working. As a result, it could take some time for the team to adapt or establish a comfort zone so promoting psychological safety might help. 

I've read many articles from Amy Edmondson, she is an expert on this topic, I really recommend her.

During the process of helping teams deploy OKRs, I have noticed many things that we can review: 

  1. Before using any tools, it's important to show them to the team by explaining what and why psychological safety is good for the organisation and the team and how it has helped many companies to boost their deployment 
  2. As a leader, it's important to try to be inclusive in decision-making. Try to give the team opportunities to share their ideas, opinions, and feedback. Each opinion is important
  3. Avoid interrupting while your team is sharing ideas. Maybe this idea is helpful for the creation of further ideas 
  4. It's ok to be a vulnerable leader. As a leader, we don't have to have all the answers. Being willing to open a new point of view, or maybe saying that you made a mistake is part of the process. If the leader presents himself or herself as a human being, and not invincible, the team will follow suit
  5. Do not punish mistakes. This process is a learning process cycle, so it's important to understand at the beginning that we might fail. Try to share with your team, “fail fast and learn fast.” Failure and learning are part of the journey, so it's important to understand that we can learn from failure.
  6. Demonstrate engagement, make eye contact to show active listening, and be aware of the team's body language. Maybe they are trying to say something that they are not able to express in words
Sandra Pretzer OKR Coach

Sandra Pretzer, OKR Coach

The question is: Do we need to establish psychological safety first before we can start working with OKRs? Well, not necessarily. While psychological safety is paramount to really tap the full potential of OKRs eventually, you can incorporate OKRs as ONE of many ways to increase the chance of creating an appropriate culture:

  • Acknowledge the absence of psychological safety if you’ve been observing certain behaviours that might indicate exactly that. Don’t turn a blind eye to it
  • Also, be aware that OKRs are not a silver bullet that will magically solve all your problems. If you feel like there’s no psychological safety in your organisation and/or team, you’ll need to work A LOT to turn things around. The OKR framework isn’t a magic wand for that
  • Two of the main principles of OKRs are transparency and focus. Transparency is a major trigger in psychologically unsafe environments. Leadership has to be the role model here. The most effective thing you can do as leadership is to walk the talk: Adopt OKRs for your leadership team first and be transparent about them and - most importantly - your learnings (yes, that includes mistakes and errors)
  • Make sure to communicate that OKRs are for learning and strategy execution and not another control instrument. Repeat, over and over again. Plus SHOW it by behaving accordingly, e.g. no scolding for not achieving OKRs by a 100%, encourage teams to share their learnings, and actively show support for them
  • Culture can’t be changed directly. All you can do is create an environment, a structure, where certain behaviour becomes more likely. To help you build this kind of environment, you can set culture-sensitive OKRs for your organisation as the first step towards psychological safety
Felix Handler, OKR Coach

Felix Handler, OKR & Sustainability Coach

Trust and thus psychological safety grow over time. Leaders can ask employees, how they measure their own success and what need from their leaders to achieve those results. It usually results in giving more freedom over time and letting go of micro-management

This comes together with leadership also sharing their own learning and errors. This should go beyond “I picked the wrong socks in the morning” but rather a decision that had a business impact. Having the prime directive in place to assume good intentions (We did the best with what we knew and had available at the time with the best intentions) is also essential to start a conversation on the right foot. Focus on the future, not the past

Christina Lange, OKR Coach

Christina Lange, OKR Coach & Speaker

Acknowledge that it’s about measurement to learn. If people use it as a control system, I’m pretty sure they will fail. Celebrate the “hits and shits” and encourage everyone to come up with ideas and improvements. 

Nora Pfützenreuter, OKR Coach

Nora Pfützenreuter, OKR Coach

In my opinion, the chance of OKRs to foster psychological safety lies in the effects of the bottom-up approach when creating OKRs:

A. Let everyone bring in ideas for improvement of the product and/ or the team

B. Openly discuss and integrate the ideas into your OKRs

C. With teams defining their OKRs, management is not giving the impression that they know everything, but giving responsibility to teams

Cansel Sorgens, OKR Coach

Cansel Sörgens, OKR Coach & Trainer

I agree that psychological safety is an important success criteria but if it’s not there yet, does that mean those teams and organisations shouldn’t start with OKR? I’d say no, that wouldn’t be fair. Because I believe OKR can help to start the conversation. For example a leadership team that I support as an OKR Coach had the improvement of psychological safety as one of their OKRs. While defining their Key Results, I asked them how the employees would behave when they felt psychologically safe. They had such an enlightening conversation and it all became clear to them, which behaviours they were missing and what they wanted to enable. I’m so looking forward to seeing their progress. 

Long story short, if the teams reach their OKRs always with 100%, always tell the success stories, but hide their fails, blame others and the circumstances for their bad results, don’t try new ideas, avoid conflicts, you can be alarmed. A self-reflection, a retrospective with the teams can help to uncover the reasons and take actions. Be aware that the support of leadership here is indispensable.

Elie Casamitjana, OKR Coach

Elie Casamitjana, Founder & CEO, OKRmentors

The lack of safety often comes from anxiety, itself brought by fear of failure. This is why one of the key elements of the OKR method is the common knowledge and understanding from all team members that failing is ok, and that it is necessary to improve. Indeed, it is always better to start and improve than get stuck because you’re striving for perfection. This is why the best thing you can do is to emphasise the importance of learning. Each team member needs to be reminded that the implementation of OKRs is something that is practiced and learned progressively, like an instrument. It's there that the collective fastens the process and makes it more entertaining and engaging.

With this in mind, it is clear that, like any learning process, to make the implementation of the OKRs anxiety-free, it is key that the teams have sufficient theory and learning materials, as well as people who can guide them through the change thanks to a thorough understanding of the OKR method.

Carsten Ley, OKR Coach

Carsten Ley, OKR Coach

OKR workshops and tracking/review meetings should be ideally facilitated by an OKR champion (similar to scrum master role) that is not the team lead. The spirit of the meetings should be modelled on daily huddles or standups in which the focus is to report on progress and obstacles and how to remove this impediments together rather than blaming each other.

Bart Denn Haak, OKR Coach

Bart Den Haak, OKR Consultant & OKR Author

To create a culture of psychological safety, I like to ask the following four questions to a team, which I learned from Jake Herway from Gallup:

  1. What can we count on each other for?
  2. What is our team's purpose?
  3. What is the reputation we aspire to have?
  4. What do we need to do differently to achieve that reputation and fulfil our purpose?

Want more tips on trust and psychological safety? In my book Moving the Needle with Lean OKRs I explain more about how to create trust within teams.

Jean-Luc Koning, OKR Coach

Jean-Luc Koning, OKR & Systemic Coach

When it comes to talking about psychological safety there's only one name: Amy Edmondson.

Instead of imperfectly trying to plagiarise her, I would strongly recommend reading her books. Why not start with "The Fearless Organisation: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth" because after all, this is exactly what this question on OKRs is about.

Sections in her book like "Stretching the stretch goal" and "Adopting an Agile Approach to Strategy" are particularly meaningful and resonate in the mind of OKR practitioners.

Among the various avenues, Amy Edmondson explores: demonstrate concern for team members as people, actively solicit questions, provide multiple ways for employees to share their thoughts, show value and appreciation for ideas, and promote positive dialogue and discussion.

Brett Knowles, OKR Coach

Brett Knowles, Global OKR Coach & Consultant

Psychological safety/ risk-free environments have always been critical to the success of any Performance Management System. There are a million “top ten” things to-do lists on Google, but the OKR specific tricks you can add on to those lists include:

Structure your OKRs some there is no single point of blame if things do not go well (i.e. make sure the Objective and/or key result is cross-functional.)

In all cases, even those where the OKR is clearly owned by a team or individual, make sure the conversation goes beyond the narrow scope of that team's performance. Consider asking two questions:

  • Impacted on: “What did you or your team do that impacted on The observed OKR performance?” This question broadens the scope of your conversation Beyond blaming just the core OKR team/ individual
  • Impacted by: “Given the observed performance how are your/your team’s OKRs impacted by this performance.” This question moves your team beyond looking for the root cause to the more useful question of what do we do now in response to the observed performance
Walter G Ferrer

Walter G Ferrer, Transformation Expert

In addition to the previous response, official check-ins are complemented with 5-10-15 minute informal check-ins early. The art of a change agent is to stay connected to our peers independent of their seniority and take temperature checks.

We lead people, We manage the rest (programs, projects, activities, etc.). Make sure the strategy is understood. 

Ellen Duwe

Ellen Duwe, OKR Coach

OKR is all about transparent communication and a common focus on finding innovative solutions to persistent obstacles. However, this only works if members of a team feel that they can address mistakes, share learnings, and suggest ideas without the fear of being reprimanded, exposed, ridiculed, or punished. 

Most leaders would agree. 

The question is though, how can you tell if someone feels like they’re being reprimanded? 

You can’t always tell. 

Leaders and OKR Masters can however do a number of things to create an atmosphere of psychological safety in which team members willingly share their thoughts and, consequently, develop and work on ambitious OKR goals:

  1. Always have a Check-In of 1-5 minutes in total

A check-in is a short, personal exchange at the beginning of an (online) meeting. It allows participants to voice what’s (really) on their minds, aside from the official agenda. Most people tend to be more relaxed and focussed after a short check-in. 

As a moderator, you can ask question such as 

  • “What's on your mind today?”
  • “What mood are you in today?”
  • “What would you like to have learned at the end of this meeting / this work day?”
  1. Ensure that everyone gets a similar amount of “speaking time”

20 percent of meeting participants talk for 80 percent of the time - sound familiar? 

In terms of psychological safety, that’s not a good sign. As a moderator you want to announce at the beginning of the OKR meeting that you’re going to make sure that every participant gets to share their thoughts and ideas evenly. And then you follow through. 

Use phrases like these to ensure an even distribution of speaking time”:

  • “Can you sum up your main argument please” - for someone who tends to talk a lot
  • “Other person, how do you view the argument from your position?” - for someone less talkative
  • “Other person, with which points do you agree? With which do you disagree?” - for someone less talkative
  1. Schedule regular retrospectives to speak openly about what’s on peoples’ minds

Let’s face it - most teams do not take the time for frequent retrospectives. However, if as OKR Master you’re sensing a lack of psychological safety, schedule a retrospective meeting every 4-6 weeks for the next 3 months to help the team uncover what’s in the way. Your ultimate goal? Help the team speak openly about learnings, errors, and ideas in order to create and work on awesome OKR goals. 

During the retrospective, ask the following questions: 

  • “What is everybody thinking and no one is saying?”
  • “What are the past issues we can’t get over?”
  • “What are your uncertainties?”
  • “What’s making you feel afraid or anxious?”

Interested in learning more about strategy, execution, & communication challenges in management? We've just published an interview with Barry O'Reilly with some great expert insight. You can read part one of his blog here.

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